Why a State Typically Promotes Its Own Official Language

Why do states generally protect their national language?

We need a less romantic explanation of why, with few exceptions, states promote their national language against encroachment by foreign languages. A non-romantic, public-choice sort of approach may work better.

Why Do States Protect Their National Language 

Seizing an opportunity to promote the French language after Brexit, French president Emmanuel Macron wants to change the main language of the European Union government from English to French (see Wall Street Journal, June 14, 2018). This raises the question of why states generally protect their national language.

Language is a sort of invisible Berlin Wall enhancing the national state’s capacity to levy taxes and mold society as it wishes.

One can imagine that the state—that is, the politicians and bureaucrats who run it—love the national language and want to protect it in order that their own subjects, as well as foreigners, be able to enjoy it. The French language has a long literary history and is (of course) beautiful. Who wouldn’t want others to learn it? This aesthetic and altruistic argument, however, may not be persuasive for creole or more localized and skimpy languages that don’t allow their speakers to participate as efficiently in the cultural adventure of mankind. Anyway, why would the average French politician and bureaucrat be concerned about the ability of others, even their fellow citizens, to read Charles Baudelaire, Marcel Pagnol, or Émile Faguet?

We need a less romantic explanation of why, with few exceptions, states promote their national language against encroachment by foreign languages. A non-romantic, public-choice sort of approach may work better.

Language and State Captivity 

When a national subject—call him a citizen if you wish—speaks one or many foreign languages and especially a lingua franca like English is today, he gains an improved ability to move to other countries if he wants to escape obligations or prohibitions that his own government imposes on him. The cost of exit is lower.

If, on the contrary, he speaks only his own state’s official language and it is not the lingua franca, the cost of exit is higher; the national state thus gains a powerful means of keeping its clientele captive. Language is a sort of invisible Berlin Wall enhancing the national state’s capacity to levy taxes and mold society as it wishes. Hence, we would expect national states—or regional quasi-states such as Québec—to promote their languages at the expense of other languages.

This theory seems to fit reality better than the romantic theory of the language-loving state. For instance, it explains why the state imposes the majority’s language on minorities, not the other way around. Except in cases where the theory of collective action à la Mancur Olson applies, the support of the majority is more useful than that of the minority. “When the state cannot please everybody,” writes Anthony de Jasay, “it will choose whom it had better please” (see my review of his book The State on Econlib).

The US state uses other means to keep its clientele captive. Worldwide taxation of income is a powerful one.

That the US state does not, and did not historically, promote English (except through public education) testifies to its more liberal outlook (“liberal” in the classical sense). The same can be said about Switzerland or (at the federal level) Canada. But are we sure that the American or Canadian state would not actively promote English if this language was just a local language and not, unfortunately for them, the lingua franca of the world?

The US state uses other means to keep its clientele captive. Worldwide taxation of income is a powerful one. Nationalist propaganda, which is on the rise, is another way to keep the subjects at home. Making the latter hated all over the world offers expanded possibilities (for the state).

The French state’s effort to keep its clientele linguistically captive will continue to be negated by the lower cost of communications brought by the internet and by inexpensive international travel. The young in France realize that speaking English opens opportunities and makes them more mobile in the world. But note that less open borders work in the other direction and strengthen the power of political authorities over their domestic clienteles, which may explain why national states are moving in that direction.

Reprinted from the Library of Economics and Liberty. 

Further Reading

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